Cars for Comrades

8 August 2008 at 9:08 am 5 comments

| Peter Klein |

A while back we posted a video from an East German Trabant factory that got a lot of hits. A video is worth more than a thousand words on the political economy of socialism, right?

Indeed, the automobile played an important role in the eventual collapse of the communist system, according to Lewis Siegelbaum’s Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Cornell University Press, 2008). As Perry Patterson notes in his review for EH.Net:

As incomes and economic complexity grew over time, the Soviet state found it necessary to produce more and more vehicles of all sorts, and private cars in particular. But policymakers also discovered that the existence of cars generated additional demands for consumer services, and discontent when the economy could not provide them. As Siegelbaum puts the matter, “cars, cars, and more cars seem to have played a particularly large and invidious role in popular disillusionment with Soviet socialism.” Worse perhaps for the Soviet state, private automobiles and the culture that grew up around them also opened up numerous ways for individuals to evade and undermine the official command economy. For example, cars facilitated private conversions, private dealmaking, the generation of “unearned” income from taxi rides, and the unplanned movement of (sometimes stolen) goods.

The quality of Soviet cars was, well, about what you’d expect. The book “provides extensive examples of the mental knots in which the Communist leaders tied themselves, wanting on the one hand to boast about their superiority over the West on all fronts, and being unable and unwilling to match it when it came to cars,” notes the Economist.

My first “serious” research paper, written in Glen Elder’s undergraduate sociology class, dealt with the social and cultural impact of “automobility” in the US, so this subject is near and dear to my heart. (Fortunately, the paper is buried deep in a secret vault and will never see the light of day.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Recommended Reading.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cliff Grammich  |  8 August 2008 at 9:36 am

    Wait a minute–your first “serious” research was in sociology? The paper may well be buried, but how will you live down this admission?

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  8 August 2008 at 9:38 am

    Look how far I’ve come!

  • 3. Cliff Grammich  |  8 August 2008 at 9:52 am

    Heh. Or fallen?

    OT, but, regarding “the social and cultural impact of ‘automobility’,” I am curious whether anybody has done work on the effect of the Interstate system (or similar highways) on rural society. (I’m guessing somebody surely has.) I can’t think of anything that has affected life in the rural county where my mom was raised more than a limited access highway built through it nearly 40 years ago. Among other things, this shifted businesses in the county seat toward the highway (excepting law firms near the courthouse), prompted a conveyor belt factory to locate in the county, and allowed residents to take jobs up to 100 miles from the county. And more on topic, it probably did stimulate “additional demands for consumer services” and have the other market effects you note for automobiles in Soviet societies . . .

  • 4. Rafe Champion  |  8 August 2008 at 6:26 pm

    A sociologist might speculate whether it was the auto or the pill that did the most for the sexual revolution.

    Completely off topic, both Popper and Mises were hair-raising drivers. What about Hayek?

  • 5. Peter Klein  |  8 August 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Interesting question, Rafe, I don’t really know. I can confirm that Murray Rothbard, like many New Yorkers of his generation, never learned to operate a vehicle. And I remember a particular ride through Manhattan, with Joe Salerno at the wheel, that raised my hair to stratospheric levels.

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